Rooted in South Carolina Soil, Could Mace’s Future Be a US Senate Seat?

August 22, 2023 by Dan McCue
Rooted in South Carolina Soil, Could Mace’s Future Be a US Senate Seat?
Rep. Nancy Mace and John Byrnes, deputy director of the Concerned Veterans for America at a town hall aboard the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point in South Carolina (Photo by Dan McCue)

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — From the outset it was clear, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., was in her element.

The featured guest on a panel hosted by the nonprofit Concerned Veterans for America aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown, the decommissioned aircraft carrier now permanently moored at Patriot Point, Mace was primed for a serious discussion on how to improve veterans’ health care.

“I just had a call today from a veteran in my district who has been struggling to get an appointment with the VA,” Mace told The Well News as she arrived for the town hall being held on the hangar deck of the historic vessel.

“One of things that our office does is help people like this veteran navigate the often-frustrating bureaucracy of an agency like the VA,” she said. “The bottom line is, there should be no wait, and right now, in places like Beaufort, South Carolina, I’m told the wait can be as long as 39 days for a doctor’s appointment.

“These men and women were willing to take a bullet for our country, we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that their health care is taken care of,” she said.

A major bone of contention for members of the Concerned Veterans of America, and Frank Bullock, the state strategic director who staged Monday night’s event, is their belief that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not living up to its obligations under the VA Mission Act. A law passed in 2017, the Mission Act allows veterans to see an outside health care provider under certain circumstances.

“Our concern is that the VA is not only skirting the law, they are deliberately trying not to enforce the access standards prescribed in the 2017 law,” said John Byrnes, deputy director of the group and moderator of the night’s panel, which also included Tyler Koteskey, policy director for the organization.

Byrnes said the veteran community saw a huge narrowing of referrals to community care at the beginning of the COVID crisis and that “the aperture kind of hasn’t reopened since then.”

“The VA actually took down its website in early 2021 — a website designed to encourage veterans to use community care — and they replaced it with one that now steers veterans back to VA medical facilities for health services.

Tyler Koteskey, policy director for the Concerned Veterans for America (left), Rep. Nancy Mace and John Byrnes, deputy director of the organization during a recent town hall on veterans health care. (Photo by Dan McCue)

VA Secretary Denis McDonough later told a Senate panel that the change stemmed from the consolidation of two VA offices, the Office of Community Care and Office of Access to Care, into one Office of Integrated Veteran Care. But that assertion has been met with disbelief by many in the veteran community.

“We have a sister organization that’s filed a few [Freedom of Information Act] requests about what’s happened, and a couple of lawsuits have been filed after our waiting years for answers that have not come,” Byrnes said.

“The whole idea behind the 2017 law was to create access standards for care that would work, and the VA was encouraged to use models that worked for other organizations, like TRICARE has for the military,” he continued.

“The idea was, if a veteran had to drive too far for care, in terms of the time it took to get back and forth from a facility, or had to wait too long for an appointment, or if the patient’s primary care provider decided it was in the best interest of the veteran, then they were supposed to be referred to community care.

“Instead what we’ve seen is the VA doing everything it can to be less than transparent,” Byrnes said. “I mean we’ve seen them doing things like changing the day of the FOIA request, telling patients, ‘We’re changing the date of your appointment to a later day,’ and then filling out the form to suggest the patient requested the change, and, of course, there was the tearing down of their website.”

Since then, the Concerned Veterans for America Foundation and its sister organization, the Conservative America Foundation, have rebuilt the VA’s Mission Act website to provide veterans with health benefit resources once readily found at the VA’s web address.

In addition to providing an opportunity for veterans to air these concerns directly to their congresswoman, Byrnes said the night’s event was also a chance to hear Mace’s views on a wide range of issues concerning veterans and her role on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

There are, among Mace’s colleagues in Congress, a number of souls who have drunk the Capitol Kool-Aid and become creatures of Washington, almost impossible to imagine outside of an environment cast in marble and concrete.

Mace, by contrast, appears in settings like these to be firmly rooted in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, and in this case, is keenly aware of her district and the state’s strong ties to the U.S. military — she is after all, the daughter of an Army officer, James Emory Mace, and was herself the first woman to graduate from The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets program.

(She also holds a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Georgia.)

Attendees at a veterans town hall aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Poised, intelligent, independent and direct, Mace nevertheless exudes a down-to-Earth quality when among her constituents, a group among whom her natural tendency to use expressions like “y’all” is not an affectation, but a sign that she’s one of them.

At the same time, there’s something solid and forward-looking about Mace that inspires one to imagine bigger things in her future.

A number of Republican insiders in the state, while publicly supporting Donald Trump, say if Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., were to win the Republican nomination for president and eventually the White House, the South Carolina GOP could urge Mace to run for his seat.

In engaging in such speculation, they note that in 2020 the former South Carolina House member became the first Republican woman ever elected to Congress from the state, and in D.C. she’s gone from strength to strength particularly when it comes to trying to solve issues impacting her constituents.

In May, for instance, Mace and two other lawmakers introduced the PLUS for Veterans Act of 2023. The bill aims to protect veterans from fraud, abuse and bad actors when seeking VA disability benefits. 

She also filed another bill aimed at providing housing options for vets experiencing homelessness.

“We have a huge number of veterans in the state of South Carolina, and their concerns are of paramount interest to the constituents I serve,” Mace told The Well News shortly before she walked up to the stage.

In addition to health care wait times, topics broached during the town hall touched on everything from veteran suicide, PTSD and depression to veterans simply not knowing what kinds of care are available to them.

At one point Mace even offered her own family’s experience as an example of what’s wrong with the VA. Her father served three tours in combat and is now the most decorated living graduate of The Citadel, the vaunted military college located in Charleston, South Carolina.

Like a lot of older adults, Mace said, her dad in recent years has encountered some stability issues. In seeking to help him, she said, she was almost shocked to learn the VA actually had a program that would have doctors, nurses and other patient care specialists actually come to one’s home.

“I’ve been a member of Congress for three years now and sit on the House committee with oversight over the VA, and even I didn’t know such a program exists,” Mace marveled. “And if I didn’t know that, I don’t know how my constituents are supposed to know that.

“The fact is, the VA does a very poor job of addressing veterans’ health care, and yet these bureaucrats routinely come before our committee with smug looks on their faces,” Mace said. “That’s how they function.

“There is no reason, except for power-hungry bureaucrats, that veterans can’t go elsewhere for the health care they need, and yet we can’t fire the bureaucrats. It’s damn near impossible to do,” she continued.

“People talk a lot about term limits for elected officials, which I love and support, but they should apply to the bureaucrats as well,” Mace said. “Instead, they get more power and are given more responsibilities and have more people that work for them.

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., speaking before constituents at Patriot’s Point, outside Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“Then they show up for our committee meetings and they don’t answer the questions, they don’t provide the documentation, you have to go the FOIA route and at the end of the day, you can’t even navigate their website,” she continued, adding, “If I were in charge of the VA, I’d redo the website, make it more user-friendly, so that you could actually access the site, tell it what your needs are, what you’re looking for, and then have it present you with real alternatives when you can’t get a timely appointment.”

Earlier, in a conference call with reporters, Mace gave an overview of some legislative items she’s been working on and offered a preview of Congress’ upcoming return to Washington.

Mace has spent a significant portion of the summer recess on the road, visiting military and intelligence installations in Turkey, Moldova, Poland, Scotland and the United Kingdom along with other members on behalf of the House Armed Services Committee.

Though she said she couldn’t discuss specific sites out of concern for national security and without permission from the committee, Mace did offer that she and her congressional colleagues visited “four different time zones over the course of seven or eight days.”

“Obviously, given what’s happening in the world right now, there was a lot of talk about readiness issues; at the same time though, South Carolina is very important to the Armed Services and from that perspective it was good to see men and women in uniform who are from South Carolina and who hail from the 1st Congressional District, who are working very hard for us and also working hard for our allies, our NATO allies in particular.”

Among other things, Mace said, the trip overseas helped inform her perspective as she prepares to go back to Washington and resume the process of passing the National Defense Authorization Act, which had gone to a conference committee just before the summer break.

“Some of what I’ve learned, again without going into detail, I’m going to be interested in going back and seeing how those programs are funded over this year and the next,” she said. “You know, we’re talking about a lot of National Defense Authorization Act funding, and while you can see the overall bill, there are also some programs that are more opaque. I can only look at the spending for those programs.

“So the briefings [we received while overseas] were invaluable because a lot of them were classified and they really fed our command of what we’re doing over there and what our capabilities are.”

Mace went on to say that while many allies depend on the U.S. remaining strong and keeping its reserves up to date, she found it worrisome that many of the U.S.’s allies haven’t taken the same approach to their own reserves.

“There are also a number of nations that would like us to have a more permanent presence in that part of the world,” she said. “Well, what does that look like? What does that mean? And is there a willingness here, domestically, to do that?

“As some of you all have seen in recent national polling, the support for Ukraine has waned over the last year and a half. It’s not what it was early on. So this was a great trip to really get insight on the intel as well as the defense side of things,” she said.

With that, Mace turned to domestic issues, noting that since she’s been back in her district, she’s begun meeting with some of the Republican presidential candidates. As of this writing, she’s one of only two members of the House GOP caucus who hasn’t formally endorsed a candidate, “and as you all know, if you win South Carolina, you go on to win the nomination,” she said.

Last week, Mace met with conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at a “Faith, Family & Freedom” dinner hosted by the Dorchester County, South Carolina, Republican Committee, and she vowed to “meet with different candidates as they come through the [South Carolina] lowcountry.” 

The U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, S.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“I want to meet and greet and host everyone as they come through over the next couple of months,” she said.

Asked if she planned to attend the first Republican presidential debate, which is being held at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Wednesday, Mace said she planned to watch it via a livestream at home.

“I want to be in the district as much as possible before we go back to Washington in mid-September,” she said.

She went on to say that among the items she’s looking for candidates to talk about is the economy, “and inflation in particular.”

“Because we’re going to see interest rates hit 8% here, and that’s significant,” she said.

“I took the kids to the grocery store when I got back from overseas, and we spent over $400 on food for the week. Pre-COVID, I was spending between $150 and $200, and that was with all the snacks and treats and all the goodies I was buying for the family. Now I spend over $400 for meat, fruits and vegetables, and no snacks,” she said.

“Now, you can argue over snacks, whether they’re unhealthy or not, but you can’t argue that $400 is a lot to spend for the necessities, and I want to hear how the candidates are going to address that issue — especially when Republicans are just as much at fault for where we are today as Democrats.

“This isn’t a one-side-or-the-other issue,” she continued. “This is an issue where my team and the other team have both contributed to the inflationary issues that we’re facing today. So how are they actually going to tackle it?”

The congresswoman said she has a spending plan she’s going to file as soon as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is ready to file a companion plan in the Senate that would balance the budget in five years by cutting six cents from every dollar in the federal budget.

“I know it’s a pipe dream. Nobody has the appetite for that,” she said. “But does anyone have a plan to balance the budget over the next 10,15, even 20 years? I would take that plan,” she continued. 

“So I’ll be looking to hear who on stage at the debate has a plan to tackle the spending issues that we have today, because the debt ceiling bill the Republicans just took the lead on set the standard of spending at the historical highs we saw during COVID. And we just can’t afford to do that, especially when Social Security is going to become insolvent in 10 years’ time. These are real issues.”

Mace said the second thing she wants to come up at the debate — “something that literally nobody is talking about” — are women’s issues.

“I just cannot, for the life of me, understand in the post-Roe era, why it is blasphemy to talk about birth control or women’s access to birth control,” she said. “I am getting hit all over the place because I mentioned birth control and I mentioned that I want women to have access to birth control.

“For the life of me I cannot understand why Republicans are so afraid to address the issue. And if you are pro-life, what exactly does that mean? What is your time frame? Are you willing to find common ground with the other side? 

“Because this is an extremely important issue,” Mace said. “Where do you stand on protecting women who’ve been raped? Where do you stand on protecting girls who are victims of incest? Where do you stand on giving women greater access to birth control?”

The congresswoman said she was shocked to learn from the Charleston Post and Courier report by Caitlin Byrd that 14 counties in South Carolina do not have a single OB-GYN doctor.

“So what are we doing for women, particularly in poor areas, or rural areas? We know that there are a lot of issues with this, and particularly post-Roe, and I want to hear a Republican candidate talk about it; it is extremely important to me as a woman, and I know that it’s important to voters down here in the 1st Congressional District.” 

Mace went on to say the other issue she wants to hear the GOP candidates address is what they intend to do to stem the flow of fentanyl coming across the border of the U.S. and Mexico.

“What does border control look like? What does border security look like? How is the Republican president going to work with Democrats on this? I mean, Democrats want DACA, we want a wall. So how will it work during their administration?

“Are we going to address the visa system? In my district, we rely significantly on the H2B visa program, and in other parts of the state, which are more farming and Ag dependent, we rely on H1B visas. So how are we going to address the visa crisis? Because we don’t have enough people for the jobs that we have to fulfill the tourism supply chain. We have great demands for tourism, food and beverage, and hospitality jobs, but we don’t have the people to fill those jobs. So the visa issue has to be addressed. 

“So in terms of what I’m looking for, those are the top three issues that I would like to see addressed,” she said.

As for what will happen in Washington once Congress returns to work on Sept. 12, Mace said, “a lot of spending fights will be happening” and she put the odds of a partial government shutdown at “about 50/50.”

“I warned people months ago when we did the debt ceiling bill that it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be,” she said. 

“And I think once we get back, we’re going to see some members who feel they were made promises that weren’t kept, and there will be others who will have to acknowledge they didn’t understand what the debt ceiling bill was and how we really didn’t need to change the structure of our debt.

“We didn’t reduce the debt with the debt ceiling bill. We didn’t reduce our deficit. We’re actually adding $20 trillion of debt over the next 10 years. And this is a problem that was started and has been continued by Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Mace predicted that there will be fierce fights over spending as each of the appropriation bills come through the pipeline and, “I think you’re going to see the abortion issue conflated as spending because people want to show their constituents back home how conservative they are — even when abortion-related measures actually have nothing to do with the bill.

“There’ll be some of those shenanigans that are played. I just want to have some fiscal sanity and fiscal responsibility,” Mace said. “And I blame both sides for the predicament that we’re in. I blame both sides for obfuscating and sometimes denying the real financial dire straits that we’re in right now. And so you’ll see me vote accordingly. 

“I do not like waste, I do not. You know, we’re gonna have a bunch of supplementals come through. And in fact, we’re talking about another supplemental for Ukraine spending, when we haven’t even seen where all the money has gone so far,” she continued.

“And we have people screaming back here in the district, ‘Why are we sending more aid to Ukraine, when we haven’t done enough for Hawaii?’ So you’re gonna see a bit of that debate come up. And if Republicans want to move forward on spending, they’re going to have to do it in a bipartisan way, because they will not get full support of the conference or of Republicans. Those are some of the big things that are going to happen when we get back. And like I said, I think there’s a real risk to having a government shutdown when we return.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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